A God I Can Believe In

Photo Credit: Martin Gommel via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Martin Gommel via Compfight cc

I met a friend last week who asked me if I still believed in God. I responded with my usual, “which God?” and he said, “Oh, I get it.”

I no longer believe the God that I used to believe (the Judeo-Christian God), but sometime in my journey from belief to unbelief, I came across a book called Conversations With God written by Neale Donald Walsch. I would eventually come to think of Walsch as another quack because of reasons I won’t go into here, but there was something in his writings that rang true. The book is written as a dialogue, Walsch would write a question on paper, and then somehow would be “moved” to write the answer, without thinking or editing. He would just write and he took that as God speaking through him.

In Walsch’s book, God explains that he has largely been misunderstood, that people were mistaken in taking the Bible literally as His one and only word, that it should instead be seen as man’s attempt to reach for the mysterious, and that there are many such scriptures and many such attempts to communicate and reveal the divine.

“So what do you want from us?” Walsch asks.

And God replies, “Nothing,” and if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. You only want something you don’t have. And a being who has or is everything surely wants nothing.

In contrast, the God I knew had a lot of strange desires and his methods of acquiring them were even more strange. For example, he wants people to love him and obey him of their own free choice, and the way he goes about it is to create this world, then the first man and woman, then tell them that they shouldn’t eat the fruit of a tree that he puts right smack in the middle of the garden where they are.

When that plan goes awry (predictably), he curses them and their offspring to eternal torment and suffering unless they believe in the Savior, his son, who is also himself, whom he sacrifices to himself, because really, someone has to die, but don’t worry, it’s not a real death because he gets to live again happily ever after, but it satisfies the bureaucratic, not to mention, primitive requirement of blood atonement.

After all that, it is quite refreshing to hear a God who says, “Really, I don’t want anything from you — not your obedience or your obeisance, not your praise or adoration, not even your love. Because what could you possibly offer to me that I don’t already have? What could you possibly add to the totality of what I already am? I don’t even care if you believe me or not. It doesn’t matter at all. It really doesn’t.”

But what about heaven and hell? What about doing good or bad?

Well, according to this God, there is no heaven nor hell, and not even good or bad. To understand this, he explains the purpose of creation — In the beginning, there was only God, and there was nothing that wasn’t God. But God only knew himself as God conceptually but not experientially. For example, a man born blind would have no concept of light or darkness, or colors, or even shades of grey, because there is no point of comparison. Only a person who has experienced light can know what darkness is, and vice versa. Similarly, only someone who has experienced Not-God could experience what God was. But God was all there is so he could not experience himself.

God, however, could not make “Not-God” for he was all there is. So he had to make a part of himself forget that it was God, and that part is called creation. And that creation is a means by which God can now experience himself. All of human experience, therefore, the good, bad and the ugly is just a way for God to experience himself. All the pain and suffering we go through, as well as all the joy and laughter, is all part of the experience of God. There is no heaven nor hell, because when anything dies, it simply goes back to being God.

Now for me that is an interesting concept, and although I don’t really believe in everything Walsch writes one hundred percent, this one makes a lot of sense. And if I do hold a belief about God, then this is a God I can believe in.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Violent Reactions? Send me an email at andy@freethinking.me. View past articles at www.freethinking.me.

Confirmation Bias

Photo Credit: Nina Matthews Photography via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Nina Matthews Photography via Compfight cc

Most people seem to have a natural resistance to change. When new information comes along, they try to fit in this information into whatever belief systems and worldviews they already have. Rather than change their beliefs, they would rather filter the information to fit their beliefs. As Warren Buffett onced observed, “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

This is what is called confirmation bias, one of the most devious roots of erroneous thinking. Sometimes, it is quite harmless but at others, it can affect major decisions one makes in life.

When a man is so in love with a woman for example (or vice versa), he may tend to look only at her positive qualities as proof that she is indeed the one for him, while glossing over other less-desirable traits, passing them off as exceptions to the rule.

When they get married, however, these traits come to foreground and irritate him to no end. Then he says, “But you weren’t like that before!” Actually, she probably was, but confirmation bias was so strong at that time that he tended not to notice it.

As a religious person before, I am aware of how strongly confirmation bias can affect one’s beliefs and one’s thinking. It is precisely this factor which makes it so difficult to convert someone from one belief to another, or to unbelief, for that matter. A person would rather find a way to harmonize new data into his belief system than to change the belief system itself.

For example, I grew up being taught that God is love, justice, compassion, etc. When I learned to read the Bible, I gravitated towards the verses that reflected this teaching. When I encountered questionable stories or verses, I would ask my pastor what this meant and he would explain them in such a way that fit into the paradigm of what God was supposed to be like. So passages that sound strange to me now did not sound that strange to me then. In fact, they only added to the “unfathomable mystery” of God, making him all the more worthy of worship because my feeble mind could not ever hope to comprehend him.

So let me give you a selection of passages from the book of Deuteronomy, unedited and uncommented, as is, where is, and let’s see how you react to them. What kind of a God gives these kinds of commands?

“If anyone secretly entices you—even if it is your brother, your father’s son or your mother’s son, or your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend—saying, ‘Let us go worship other gods,’…you must not yield to or heed any such persons. Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. But you shall surely kill them; your own hand shall be first against them to execute them, and afterwards the hand of all the people. Stone them to death for trying to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  Then all Israel shall hear and be afraid, and never again do any such wickedness.” (Deuteronomy 13:6-11)

“When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you at forced labor. If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil.” (Deuteronomy 20:10-14)

“If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death.” (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

“If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity.” (Deuteronomy 25:11-12)

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Violent Reactions? Send me an email at andy@freethinking.me. View past articles at www.freethinking.me.

Intercession Confusion

Photo Credit: smif via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: smif via Compfight cc

I was a young protestant in a Catholic school. One day, I went to a priest and asked, “Why do you Catholics have to pray to Mary and the saints? Why not just pray directly to God?”

He answered, “Oh we don’t really HAVE to pray to them. And you’re right, we CAN pray directly to God, but you know, it’s like sometimes when you have a favor to ask someone and you can’t ask them directly, so you try to talk to people who are closer to that person than you are — well, it’s sort of like that. We ask Mary and the saints to intercede, to ask, on our behalf because they are, in a sense, closer to God than we are.”

I never did understand that explanation. Is there some sort of palakasan (a system of who has the stronger connections) in heaven? Does God unfairly show more favor to some than to others?

Years later, as an active member of our church, I would join prayer meetings (the least attended church activity all week) and the pastor would lament that very few people took time to intercede on others behalf. I would often wonder, what if the prayer meeting was jam-packed? What if 300 people were praying for Mrs. So-and-so’s cancer to be healed or Mr. So-and-so’s blood sugar levels to go down, would God have been more inclined and moved to do something about it than if it had only been 10 people asking? Is that how this thing works? Is God merely waiting for how many people have “liked” or shared that facebook status before he does something?

In fact, why would God, who supposedly sees and knows everything (even before they happen), have to rely on our intercessory prayers in order to act?

If I had the means to cure cancer, I would surely try to share and get that information out to as many people as possible, even without anyone telling me to do so. You don’t even have to get my mother to convince me to do it.

It bothers me that I have to ask God to do something that he should have known (and done) in the first place.

Ah but here’s the kicker, the Christian defense – “but you DON’T know. You DON’T know that lowering his blood sugar will actually be good for him. You DON’T know that taking the cancer away is the BEST thing to happen. It may be what is bringing that person’s family closer together as they try to help each other resolve this crisis.”

All right, that’s fine, but it also makes intercessory prayer totally useless. Why should I keep praying for this and that to happen when clearly, I don’t know squat about what’s going to happen? Why bother interceding? Just hope for the best, then.

I wasn’t an agnostic then at this point. I still believed in prayer, but I became convinced that it was useless to utter prayers where you asked for this or that — it didn’t matter if you asked for yourself or in behalf of others — because clearly, what was going to happen was going to happen anyway, and if I believed that God knows what’s best for us humans, then what’s going to happen is THE best thing that can happen regardless of how awful and tragic it may seem at the moment. I became convinced that the only prayer worth uttering was one of gratitude, whatever the circumstances.

Why put yourself through the emotional roller-coaster ride that comes with asking and asking with faith, convincing yourself that if you believe hard enough, you’ll get what you ask, and then getting disappointed anyway? Why not just accept that everything that happens, well, happens and we make do, or we make the best out of it.

I no longer pray, whether for myself or for others. What for? I just live, enjoy the company of my family and friends, and accept whatever comes my way.

There is no better way to live.

 Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Violent Reactions? Send me an email at andy@freethinking.me. View past articles at www.freethinking.me.

Remembering the Dead

Photo Credit: drburtoni via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: drburtoni via Compfight cc

The first and second days of November is that time of the year when people go to the cemetery to visit the graves of their departed loved ones. I remember my dad bringing the whole family to the Chinese cemetery many decades ago. We would visit the graves of my grandfather (who died before I was born) and grandmother, as well as my uncle, my father’s eldest brother (who also died before I was born).

I would often dart in and out of the maze of mausoleums, breathing in the incense and candle-smoke, looking at old pictures and inscriptions of the departed.

I remember one particular mausoleum. In the many years that we visited, it never seemed to have any visitors. I remember it because there was a striking photograph of an old couple. I don’t remember much of the woman’s face but the man wore a scowl and his eyes bore deep into my own. That photo gave me the creeps and I used to imagine that the man was Count Dracula himself.

As I grew older, the yearly visits became more tiresome because of the heat and traffic, and the novelty of exploring to and fro had worn off. Even “Dracula” didn’t scare me as much as he used to anymore. I would often ask my dad if I could skip the visit and just stay home. He would say, “No, it’s just one day out of a year, and it’s important, even for just that one day, to remember the dead and reflect on how they have touched our lives.”

Well, I wasn’t able to do that because I was out of town and preoccupied with other matters. So I thought now would be a good time to pause and remember some old friends and relatives who are dearly missed.

Uncle Roland – My dad’s youngest brother, whom I got as a ninong during my wedding. I had met him only once before as a teenager as he was already based in the U.S. a few years before I was born. The second time around, he visited Davao after being away for around 3 decades and it was a delight touring him around, especially when we passed Uyanguren and he exclaimed, “Uy Giok’s! Wow! Still alive huh?” I brought him to my Toastmasters meeting where he saw an old friend in Dr. Evelyn Fabie (who has also passed on). We had great conversation that afternoon over coffee where he shared to me his life and experience in the U.S. It was probably the first deep conversation I had with any relative of mine.

Eric Solon – My next door neighbor and one of my very first friends. He was two years older than me, taught me how to ride a bike, play ping-pong, climb walls, and basically, if I was not over at his house, he was over in mine. They had a large German Shepherd that I never quite got to befriend (I usually had a way with dogs, but not this one) — it bit me on the back when I carelessly leaned on their iron-railed fence one day. When Eric was in high school, he had cancer in his leg and it had to be amputated. But we later found out that the cancer had already spread to the rest of his body and he passed away soon after.

Uncle Frank – I didn’t really like him at first as he tended to be rough and brusque when talking to me. Also, he smoked like crazy and I didn’t enjoy inhaling the second-hand smoke. When I was in college, I remember being on a bus along EDSA, then I saw a car in the distance — and I thought, “That looks like Uncle Frank’s car,” but I wasn’t really sure because I couldn’t see who the driver was through the tinted glass. Then I saw the window open and dark smoke comes belching out of it, and then I thought, “Oh yes, that’s Uncle Frank for sure.”

It was only later that I learned of his tender and caring side, from my mom and some cousins who were closer to him than I was. I was there at his funeral and cremation, where one cousin playfully put a cigarette over his folded hands — one last stick for him as his corpse rolled towards the furnace.

Ernest Tan-chi – a good friend of mine and my wife who died in a car accident just a month before our wedding. I had met Ernest during my college years and I particularly remember a cold night in Tagaytay during a church conference. I had wandered out of my room because I couldn’t sleep and there was this dog wandering around so I sat with the dog and played with it. Ernest comes passing by and sits beside me and we talked for hours about life, death, God, and all sorts of things.

Eric Ramos – my classmate ever since we were in grade school all the way to high school. He had a unique and wacky take on things. I remember when our barkada was dining out at a fast food joint. After the meal, we were talking and drinking and Eric was noisily crushing the ice from his drink with his teeth. He then remarked to the waiter passing by, “Boss, ang sarap pala ng ice niyo dito” (Your ice tastes delicious). In a surreal repeat of what had happened earlier to Ernest, I would come to read of Eric’s demise in the U.S., also of a car accident.

My dad was right. It is good to take a little time and reflect on those who have departed, to think about what their lives meant, and how they have touched us. And when we do that, they continue to live on in our memories and in our hearts.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Violent Reactions? Send me an email at andy@freethinking.me. View past articles at www.freethinking.me.

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